The Myth of Morality: Practical Rationality

This post is the third in a series covering Richard Joyce’s The Myth of Morality, a book arguing both for error theory and fictionalism about morality.

In the last post, Joyce’s conception of moral inescapability was introduced, and moral imperatives were identified as strongly categorical. In this post, Joyce uses the insights gained to sketch an argument for a moral error theory. A theory of practical rationality is given, and used to refine the argument.

The Argument for Moral-Error Theory: First Pass

This brings us to our first sketch of Joyce’s argument:

1. If x morally ought to φ, then x ought to φ regardless of whether he cares to, regardless of whether φing satisfies any of his desires or furthers his interests.
2. If x morally ought to φ, then x has a reason for φing.
3. Therefore, if x morally ought to φ, then x has a reason for φing regardless of whether φing serves his desires or furthers his interests.
4. But there is no sense to be made of such reasons.
5. Therefore, x is never under a moral obligation.1 Continue reading


The Myth of Morality: Moral Inescapability

This post is the second in a series covering Richard Joyce’s The Myth of Morality, a book arguing both for error theory and fictionalism about morality.

In the last post, we left off with a method of determining  whether an error-theoretical stance should be taken toward moral discourse: first, find one or more non-negotiable propositions implied by the discourse; second, attempt to ascertain whether these non-negotiable propositions are true. In this post, Joyce begins to build his case for an error theory.

Moral Inescapability & Prudential Oughts

Joyce’s argument for error theory centers on what he calls ‘moral inescapability’.  He views moral discourse in the tradition of J.L. Mackie, as being objectively prescriptive: is the idea that there are actions which we “have to do, regardless” that underlies the claims of objective prescriptivity. The problem of ordinary moral discourse is not a matter of what motivations accompany our moral judgments – it is, rather, that we think that people are “bound” even if they make no moral judgments at all. Even the person who has rejected that whole realm we still think of as being under the jurisdiction of morality.” ~ Joyce, p. 31. Continue reading

Theism/Agnosticism/Atheism: Three Taxonomies

As a former member of the forums1, I can testify to an everlasting threads contesting the meanings of ‘theist’, ‘agnostic’ and ‘atheist’. Members would register their various opinions over what the terms really meant, and argue vociferously for those definitions. Viewed one way, the discussion was silly – if the point of it was to identify the meanings of words, then disagreement ought to have led discussants quickly to the conclusion that these words had different senses, not into entrenched debate. But viewed another way, the discussion was reasonable – if instead the point was to say what the definitions of these terms should be, then the obvious fact that these terms are understood in various ways doesn’t settle the issue, and discussants can quite rightly hold to their positions in the face of it. Indeed, one might think that the diversity of definition is precisely why the debate is worth having – if a single set of definitions can be negotiated, then we can avoid the confusion which diversity causes.

Anyhow, Emil of ‘Clear Language, Clear Mind‘ thinks settling the question is worthwhile, and to that end explores two commonly adopted nomenclature. The first of these he calls the ‘Old Nomenclature’:

  • Atheism means “the denial of the existence of God or gods.“
  • Theism means belief/faith in the existence of God or gods.
  • Agnosticism means either “the belief that there can be no proof either that God exists or that God does not exist” or is the lack of belief “either way”.

In contrast, the ‘New Nomenclature’:

  • Atheism” means the lack of belief in God or gods.
  • Weak/negative atheism” means the lack of belief ‘either way’.
  • Strong/positive atheism” means the denial of the existence of God or all gods.
  • Theism” means belief in the existence of God or gods.
  • Agnosticism” means either the belief that there is no knowledge about God or gods, or the belief that knowledge of God or gods is impossible.

But how do we decide between them? Continue reading

The Myth of Morality: Error Theory and Motivation

Lately, I’ve been reading Richard Joyce’s The Myth of Morality, and it’s impressive. As the title suggests, Joyce argues in favor of an error theory concerning moral discourse: he claims that rational inescapability is an ineliminable component of it, that this feature is unsatisfied by the world we find ourselves in, and that therefore moral discourse is hopelessly flawed. From there, he moves on to discuss why this error should be so widespread, finding an answer in natural selection. Lastly, Joyce speculates that moral discourse might, despite its flaws, nevertheless be worthwhile continuing on with – he advocates a fictionalist stance that purports to preserve some of the benefits of moral discourse (such as combating akrasia), without committing to belief in moral propositions.  I’ll be blogging my way through the book, in this and upcoming posts.

Setting the Stage

The Myth of Morality opens with a discussion of the Polynesian concept of ‘tapu’, which is to be shown an appropriate subject of error theory. Tapu, we are told, “centrally implicates a kind of uncleanliness or pollution that may reside in objects, may pass to humans through contact, may be then transmitted to others like a contagion, and which may be canceled through certain ritual activities, usually involving washing“(p.1). But whilst primitive Polynesians have certainly thought this concept to have application, the modern Western mind denies this: the former assert some sentences of the form “Φ is tapu”, whereas the latter think that these sentences are false1. That is, the modern Westerner adopts an error theory concerning tapu-discourse. Continue reading

Frege, Relativism and Faultless Disagreement

This post is re-presents an article of the same name by Sven Rosenkranz, found in the volume Relative Truth1.


Truth Relativism2 can be an attractive prospect. In aesthetics, in ethics, and elsewhere, there are insoluble disputes, where not only does neither side appear to have epistemic advantage over the other, but it seems quite natural to say that both sides are entitled to their opinions. That is, there seem to be faultless disagreements, where the assertions of each disputant are in contradiction, and yet where each side is correct to assert as they do. Supposing that this is an accurate read of the situation, how are we to make sense of it? Enter Relativism: the simultaneous correctness of both claims is to be explained by the fact that each claim is true relative to the claimant’s perspective. Unfortunately, the hope that Relativism can support the notion of faultless disagreement appears to be forlorn.
Continue reading

Dawkins and the Ultimate 747 Gambit

A while back, Lukeprog of Commonsense Atheism began writing a series of posts on the Gambit found in The God Delusion (henceforth: TGD). There, as I’ve done elsewhere, I attempted to defend Dawkins against what I saw as misinterpretations of his argument against the existence of God. This was not so much because I thought Dawkins was entirely clear, but more because I felt assumptions were being made that Dawkins need not be committed to. This post is an attempt to take what I’ve denied on behalf of Dawkins, and turn it into a positive account of the Ultimate 747 Gambit.

What is the Argument?

I’ll begin by pointing out what the argument is not. It is not the series of six numbered points that end chapter 4, which Dawkins introduces thus:

“This chapter has contained the central argument of my book, and so, at the risk of sounding repetitive, I shall summarize it as a series of six numbered points.” ~ TGD, p.157

Continue reading

The Logical Problem: Support from Above

In the previous post, I sketched a valid argument from evil concluding the non-existence of God. I noted then that premise (3) was the most dubious, and promised to give it support. So..

Support for (3)

(A) God exists. (Assumption)
(B) If God exists, he is ontologically independent (i.e. it is possible that he should exist, without any other thing existing).
(C) If God exists, then he instantiates all good-making properties, and no evil-making properties.
(D) Thus, it is possible that God alone should exist, instantiating all good-making properties and no evil-making properties.
(E) Then, there is no good-making property whose instantiation entails instantiation of an evil-making property.
(F) Therefore, every evil-making property is such that its existence is not entailed by some good-making property.
(3) Every evil-making property is such that its existence is not entailed by some greater good-making property.

Continue reading